Landmarks votes to consider Philip Johnson’s postmodern AT&T Building for historic designation
This morning the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to calendar the postmodern skyscraper at 550 Madison Avenue, designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1984. The world’s first skyscraper built in a postmodern style was originally known as the AT&T Building, as the tower served as the company headquarters. Sony moved in in the 1990s, giving it the nickname of the Sony Tower.
Last year, the building sold to the Olayan Group and Chelsfield for a whopping $1.4 billion. Their resulting renovation plan, led by Snøhetta, has elicited protest from preservationists who do not want to see changes to the building’s impressive arched entryway. Now that the tower’s calendared, the developers’ $300 million renovation will eventually come up for a landmarks vote by the LPC.
The tower became eligible for landmark status in 2014, 30 years after its completion. But there wasn’t any push to landmark until Snøhetta’s renovation plans were released this fall. The design calls for modernizing the lower levels of the building, as well as adding new amenities and a 21,000-square-foot public garden. According to Olayan America, the tower’s famous Chippendale top will be preserved. The building’s stone facade will then be partially replaced at eye level with an undulating glass curtain wall, in an attempt to highlight the building’s arched entryway.
The new owners have argued that the plans will only enhance Johnson’s 1980 postmodern design. But preservationist beg to differ. This November there was a protest against replacing the building’s base with a scalloped glass front. (Signs read “Hands off my Johnson,” “Save the Stone,” and “Save AT&T.”) Even architect Robert A.M. Stern joined the voices of opposition.
There was also a Change.org petition circulated in an attempt to preserve Johnson’s building by having the Landmarks Preservation Commission officially designate it a city landmark. The LPC certainty listened, as evidenced by today’s calendaring vote.
There have been a lot of twist and turns for the skyscraper since Sony left the building nearly two years ago, leaving many of the office floors vacant. Olayan and Chelsfield bought it from the Chetrit Group, who paid $1.1 billion for it in 2013. Chetrit brought on Robert A.M. Stern to design condos for the tower but those plans never materialized. Now, once again, plans to change up the tower are up in the air.